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General Synod: Archbishop of York decries slow progress

12 July 2019

Madeleine Davies, Adam Becket, and Tim Wyatt report from the General Synod in York


The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu

THE Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, used his presidential address to propose some solutions to the Church of England’s internal disagreements.

Quoting the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, Dr Sentamu asked how it could be that people who “read the same Bible and share the same baptism” could come to such different conclusions on issues such as sexuality. Nine years since Lord Williams had asked that question at the Synod in 2010, the Church had made “little, if any, progress in answering it”.

Their disagreements were an opportunity to model to wider society how to disagree well, Dr Sentamu said. But the old habits of regular scriptural reading had broken down, and biblical literacy was at a worryingly low level in the C of E, among the clergy as well as the laity. “And if we do not read consistently, we shall not think consistently,” he concluded. They jumped to quick conclusions and no longer pursued a thorny issue “patiently and in hope”. Too many in the Church had got used to relying on others, whether they were theologians, scientists, or sociologists, to do their thinking for them. As a result, the Church acted an echo-chamber instead of an interpreter.

Before quizzing fellow believers on how they could believe things that one thought were false, first understand how they believed “the faith of Christ”, Dr Sentamu suggested. “To put yourself in your opponent’s shoes, you need to believe that God is leading your opponent, too, on the pilgrimage of faith seeking understanding.” As Christians read all of scripture deeply, the Holy Spirit would converge minds and wills together. The Archbishop then quoted the social psychologist Anatol Rapoport’s rules of good argument: re-express your opponent’s position vividly and fairly, list points of agreement, mention what you have learned from them, and only then begin any rebuttal or criticism.

Quoting his predecessor John Habgood, Dr Sentamu reminded the Synod that they read the Bible to encounter a living God who guided them towards the future, not simply to understand history. And if the Church became a community of the Holy Spirit, then it would begin to answer the question how to disagree well, because the “Holy Spirit is the enemy of division and party-spirit”. This is what it meant to live a “Jesus Christ-shaped life”.

The current debates on sexuality, gender, and identity had had a “chilling effect on all of us”, Dr Sentamu said. “The urgent task before us is to find a trusting and tending way for the Church overall to support people on all sides who are experiencing the damage the debates have caused.”

He recalled how the most vociferous “unbridled hatred” that he had ever experienced came from Christians who objected to his support on a TV programme years ago for baptising children whose parents were gay.

Members of one body must not simply think for themselves alone, but see the Church as a symphony orchestra, he suggested. “None of us should play a discordant note; and none of us should ignore the conductor, the Holy Spirit.” Were they willing to follow the example of Christ and humble themselves and wash the feet of others? The way to ascend was to descend, Dr Sentamu concluded. “May the General Synod continue to think and act in catholic communion with the wider Church and the pursuit of Christian unity. And, when we disagree, to disagree Christianly, in a Jesus Christ-shaped life.”

General Synod members were then asked to spend a few minutes reflecting on the Archbishop’s address with those who were sitting near them.

Read full coverage of the General Synod here

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